Part III – Writing
This is the conclusion of our discussion on FRUSTRATING NOVELS, novels that could have been good but missed the mark. In the previous posts, we have drilled down problems of plotting and mercilessly evaluated the role and necessity of characters.
Let’s now turn our attention to the final big contributor to writing a bad novel, the Writing itself.
Just to be clear, by flawed writing I do not mean elements of style and prose or the mechanics of grammar. I am not comparing one piece of writing with another, not lamenting wrong word usage, not talking about making sentences better, paragraphs tighter, or any such thing. I am referring to writing that is fundamentally wrong, writing that is neither ideally structured nor clearly purposeful.
The common problems are many but we will restrict ourselves to look at the 10 most dominant flaws
- Unnecessary descriptions
Books aren’t visual like movies and hence descriptions are very important, but the length and placement of this description is the key to good reading. Too much description or description in the middle of action takes away from the flow of the story.
A lot of writers depend on lengthy descriptions to amp up the word count because they feel their novel isn’t thick enough. I am yet to come across a buyer who picks up a book tries to figure out its weight and says, “Aah, heavy; must be good!”
If your book is too short you can explore characters or make sub-plots meatier. You could even introduce a few characters or sub-plots, tying them intrinsically to the story of course, but you cannot pad up your book with excess description.
Other writers aren’t chasing word count they are merely obsessed about descriptions. Everything has to be described and detailed; they would describe a chess board, one square at a time if they could. Readers pick up on these obsessed writers and in most cases, skip descriptions the moment they come to it.
Describing easily identifiable things is another problem. Some writers will describe Times Square or the London Bridge as if they were places in Middle Earth and no one’s heard of or seen them. This serves no purpose but to irritate the hell out of your reader. Even if your reader hasn’t heard of or seen Times Square, there is no reason to tell him about it unless something significant is going to happen there and an understanding of the environment is necessary.
- Description of attire
Description of each and every character and their clothes every time they enter a scene is also unnecessary; if done should be minimal.
Alice entered the office and set down her favourite umbrella, the one with the brown and yellow polka dots. Then she proceeded to take off her overcoat revealing a purple top paired with white trousers. The white trousers had been washed too many times as they were fading into a cream colored shabbiness. The purple top however was new, probably picked out of an end-of-season sale at one of the big fashion houses. It looked smart and fitted her form well.
80 words, but to what end?
Now imagine Alice enters 10 times in the course of the book and in each entry you describe her clothes, purse or some such thing in great detail. Now imagine doing that for all of the 10-12 characters you have and their various entries. There you go, your book is straight up by 10,000 words.
40 unnecessary pages!
- Weather reports
This covers more than just weather reports. Every chapter begins with an introduction to the setting: the location, the weather, the sounds, the smells.
You can rest assured that you have lost your reader, he has either finally abandoned your book or has jumped right into the third paragraph (Oh, I hope you have finished with it by the third paragraph!)
If you want to paint a picture of how cold London gets in November, you can keep adding a line here, a line there to remind the reader of the environment. You can however, do it only so many times.
Also weather and environmental descriptions need not be direct and boring.
He bobbed up and down on his toes to keep himself warm [A visual]
The icy cold wind attacked his exposed neck and he shivered from head to toe. It was cold. [A description]
- Let’s shake hands
Some authors describe mundane activities with the greatest of detail.
He approached the reception.
The receptionist looked up from her crossword
“Good morning, I am Clive Roberts.”
“Good morning Mr. Roberts. What can I do for you?”
I am here to see Miss David”
“Let me check?”
She calls up a number.
He taps on the desk while admiring the lobby [insert lengthy description of swanky lobby].
She tells the person on the other end about Mr. Roberts.
She nods to something.
She asks Mr. Roberts to follow her.
She escorts him to a [insert lengthy description] meeting room.
After some time Miss David enters.
He holds out his hand.
She takes his outstretched hand and shakes it in a warm yet professional manner.
And then the meeting starts.
Yay! What fun!
Get to the point. Get to the point where the action starts.
- Did I tell you about…?
Repeating information is another tool that authors use to sometimes to remind readers, sometimes to just give a character something to say, and sometimes to just fill some pages.
A tells B about C.
B tells D what A told him about C.
And the chain continues.
Some authors think repeating info is about reminding the reader. It works to an extent, and is also allowed to an extent, but it’s a tightrope walk. If you keep repeating information you encourage the reader to jump a few paragraphs here and there. The reader knows that you’ll remind him if he’s missed something important.
- The round table
This is the worst of all. It doesn’t necessarily use a round table but a bunch of characters essentially get together and recap information. In Chapter 1, A learns something and then in chapter 2, B learns something and so on. In chapter 6 A to E come together and recap all that they have learnt. Now they are all on the same page. You forget the reader was always on the same page, he knew all about this even when you didn’t recap it for him.
A more atrocious form of this is character exposition through discussions. People sit around (happens a lot in YA novels) and keep discussing other people. Six girls meet at a McDonald’s and discuss Andy and his friend Jake and that girl Sheena who’s always looking at Andy and then there’s Miranda who is always being stalked by Jake.
This fun round table assumes that the information shared is going to tell the readers more about the six girls and Andy and party. It’s a boring dump of information that stops the plot. It’s like a tea break in your story.
- The Wire-frame writing
A wire-frame acts as a placeholder and many writers who get a little too caught up with what’s-hot-now tend to use it liberally. Insert romantic scene here, insert car chase there, is how the plot is written. A lot of elements are put in because they need to be there. Or so the writer thinks.
While certain genres do have reasonable expectations like some cat-and-mouse in a thriller, some lovemaking in a romance, these motifs are part of the larger plot. They don’t add together to make up the plot. Having such a formulaic and free plot often leads to episodic writing. The individual pieces are often written separately and then inserted into the story.
Your novel reads like a newspaper, a lot of good writing, a lot of variety, but nothing binds it. Correcting this is easier said than done.
- The Full Precis
On the other extreme end of padded writing is the precis. This is basically plot points based writing: first this happens then this happens.
There are two types of precis that crop up every so often. The first one is the full precis: the entire novel has been more or less written as a narrative summary with maybe 8 to 10 scenes fleshed out.
The events do not happen or unfold for the reader. Then a few important scenes are suddenly happening in real time, unfolding before the reader’s eyes.
This kind of summarizing happens when the writer jots down plot points and then elaborates them one at a time, often forgetting that the elaboration should be in scenes and not merely a more detailed narration. Reading your novel has suddenly become a boring task, like listening to a basketball game commentary on the radio. It’s just not the real thing!
Fortunately, this can be easily overcome by changing the summarized parts of the novel to scenes and events. Unfortunately, it is very laborious and often leads to a complete change in the story.
I am not suggesting your entire novel be written in scenes. There is a place for summarizing in fiction and it is a tool that should be used, only not as often as you use the scene. How to make seamless scenes is a topic that calls for an elaborate discussion for some other day.
- The Partial Precis
This narrative summarizing doesn’t pervade the whole book but a few important scenes and plot points are summarized. This happens because the author doesn’t like writing particular scenes and rushes through them.
Mystery and thriller writers often find it difficult to handle scenes of courtship or romance and rush through them, while many romance writers tend to jump over scenes of actual fighting and give a quick summary instead.
If a scene is important then it has to be shown and detailed. If it is an unimportant scene it needs to be summarized and done away with. Consider the example in “Let’s shake hands” above, the entire scene at the lobby has to be summarized in two or three sentences, no detailing needed. The meeting is the important scene and it should be shown, in detail.
If you don’t know how to write a terrifying scene, learn it. You cannot deprive your reader of critical scenes for want of your own skills. A romance writer will rarely write a suspense scene like a thriller writer and a thriller writer will rarely match up to a romance writer in writing a courtship scene, but an OK scene is better than a fantastic summary.
Summarizing important scenes is like a roller coaster ride where you keep your eyes shut the whole time, the net result is that you know you have been on the roller coaster but you haven’t really experienced it. That’s exactly what the reader feels.
- Filler Scenes that look like filler scenes
Your novel will have filler scenes.
Yeah it will, and it must. Filler scenes are basically scenes of low intensity or low tension after scenes of high tension and they serve an important function: pacing.
You cannot have a lot of back-to-back high-tension or high-stakes scenes because they prevent your reader from absorbing the full impact of the high-tension scenes. Have you noticed how some readers get up for a glass of water or a short break once they finish a high-intensity scene, that’s because they want to savor it, they want to let it sink in.
If you don’t provide that break, they will find it for themselves.
A common ailment in FRUSTRATING NOVELS is that the Writer is often bored by these pacing scenes and is longing to jump to the next juicy turn in the plot. In jumping to the ‘next big event’ the writer does a shabby job of the pacing scene. This shoddy work on the pacing scene makes it clear to the reader that the scene is not important and your pacing scene (often called the sequel) is reduced to being a mere filler. And any self-respecting reader will jump over a filler scene the moment he figures it out.
You just killed the pace of your story.
These 10 flaws are extremely common and most are easy to avoid. These aren’t small mistakes, these are flaws that will take over your writing and destroy your book. Search them out and remove them.